New poets mine rich seam of lan­guage

Ge­of­frey Lehmann

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AN older poet who is a friend re­cently said to me that Aus­tralian po­etry is en­joy­ing a golden age. This claim is true, but I doubt whether the Aus­tralian read­ing pub­lic is par­tic­u­larly aware of this fact. If I were to pre­pare an al­pha­bet­i­cal list of Aus­tralian poets who are out­stand­ing and whose first books have been pub­lished since 1980, my list would be ridicu­lously long. It would have to in­clude Ju­dith Bev­eridge, Kevin Bro­phy, El­iz­a­beth Camp­bell, Caro­line Caddy, Jen­nifer Comp­ton, Tri­cia Dear­born, Stephen Edgar, Peter Goldswor­thy, Philip Hod­gins, Carol Jenk­ins, An­drew Lans­down, An­thony Lawrence, Bron­wyn Lea, Emma Lew, Stephen McIn­er­ney, Homer Reith, Gig Ryan, Philip Salom, An­drew Sant, Shen, Craig Sher­borne and Alex Skovron. Some of th­ese poets are very dif­fer­ent from each other and might look askance at their bed­fel­lows. But all have writ­ten mem­o­rable and ex­cit­ing po­ems.

Add to this the fact that some older poets, for ex­am­ple, Robert Adamson, Jen­nifer Maiden and Alan Wearne, have re­cently ex­tended their range and writ­ten some of their best work.

There have been other high points in Aus­tralian po­etry, for ex­am­ple when Pater­son, Law­son and Bren­nan were pub­lish­ing in The Bul­letin in the 1890s.

But what is as­ton­ish­ing about Aus­tralian po­etry now is the sheer num­ber of poets who have writ­ten out­stand­ing po­ems.

Some read­ers may be sur­prised by how en­joy­able much of this po­etry is. The po­ems of Clive James and the comic verse of Barry Humphries are of course very ac­ces­si­ble and writ­ten in reg­u­lar forms. By com­par­i­son the prosody of two other lesser known Aus­tralian poets, Nigel Roberts and Pi O, may ap­pear strange and for­bid­ding on the page. But their po­ems can be won­der­fully in­ven­tive and as funny as James and Humphries.

Con­tribut­ing fac­tors to this ef­flo­res­cence of Aus­tralian po­etry may be our larger pop­u­la­tion, the release of en­ergy from the sex­ual revo­lu­tion of the 1960s and ’ 70s and, more re­cently, the in­ter­net. Some of our fe­male poets, for ex­am­ple, Dear­born, Jenk­ins and Ryan, are won­der­fully frank. Poets have a con­trol over their prod­uct that film­mak­ers and nov­el­ists usu­ally do not have, and the shorter con­fes­sional poem is an art form that could have been custom-de­signed for in­ter­net sites such as Face­book.

The Youngstreet Poets is a group that has ex­isted for more than 30 years and is one of those co-op­er­a­tives where mem­bers reg­u­larly meet and work­shop their po­ems. There are sev­eral such groups across Aus­tralia and they have con­trib­uted to the re­nais­sance of our po­etry. When the Sky Caught Fire is the eighth an­thol­ogy of po­ems by this group and fea­tures work by 18 poets, edited by Bev­eridge.

All the po­ems are en­joy­able and em­i­nently read­able. In The Am­bi­gu­ity of Olives , Kath Broughton cel­e­brates an elab­o­rate feast of some Ital­ian friends on a sum­mer lake that ends as they ‘‘ drink to their next meet­ing / in 1481 // a year of plague’’. Brook Emery has three po­ems in which he tries to make sense of his ex­pe­ri­ence ‘‘ at a slight an­gle to the world’’ and ‘‘ my hori­zon stretched’’.

Bar­bara Fisher has a poem spo­ken through the voice of Deborah Milton, who won­der­fully ex­co­ri­ates her blind and com­pla­cent fa­ther-poet. Fisher’s po­ems about birds walk­ing and count­ess Tol­stoy are equally good. He­len Hay­wardBrown has a very touch­ing poem about the death of an asth­matic school mate. Hi­larie Lind­say won­ders whether she should release a bon­sai tree from its bondage, like the bound feet of tra­di­tional Chi­nese women, and de­cides to trim its roots. Les­ley Wal­ter com­pares her baby grand­son to ‘‘ a steamed rice-pa­per roll . . . So wholly ed­i­ble’’.

Bel Schenk is a for­mer lead singer and gui­tarist of a pop group, is on Face­book and her book of po­ems Am­bu­lances and Dream­ers has this en­dorse­ment on its cover from the No­belist J. M. Coet­zee: ‘‘ The in­flec­tions with which Bel Schenk greets that odd cou­ple, ur­ban love and ur­ban lone­li­ness, are all her own. An en­gag­ing col­lec­tion.’’

The po­ems are typ­i­cally about cook­ing, watch­ing TV, hang­ing around in the laun­dro­mat, love in a karaoke bar. There are fre­quent ref­er­ences to Chi­nese food and for­tune cook­ies and films. Lines such as ‘‘ the freeze of a movie em­brace / the dull ache of a last kiss / the numb­ness of the still’’ could be read as sen­ti­men­tal, and per­haps they are, but there is a know­ing­ness, an am­bi­gu­ity at the heart of Schenk’s po­etry that re­sists easy la­bels.

In Fes­ti­val Time in the City she com­ments on her own poem in eight foot­notes, many of which are de­lib­er­ately ba­nal and an­ti­cli­mac­tic.

One of the most en­gag­ing po­ems, to bor­row Coet­zee’s ad­jec­tive, is In the Chi­nese Gro­cery Store . The poet and her friend see an old Chi­nese lady steal­ing some dirty bok choy and imag­ine she will cook for them. One of her most am­bi­tious po­ems is The Land­ing Is Harder in Real Time . This de­scribes what a woman sui­cide sees at night through apart­ment win­dows as she falls from the 61st floor.

Yi Sha was born in 1966 in the south­ern Chi­nese city of Chengdu, three days af­ter the start of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. He is a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, but a rene­gade from the Chi­nese lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment and a self­de­scribed bas­tard, fig­u­ra­tively and not in the lit­eral sense. His book, Starve the Poets! , in­cludes trans­la­tions of 118 po­ems se­lected from 340 po­ems that he sent to his trans­la­tors.

He is de­scribed by his pub­lisher as the most con­tro­ver­sial Chi­nese poet of the past 20 years, a mem­ber of the ex­treme avant-garde whose work has changed the face of Chi­nese po­etry.

All this sounds in­tim­i­dat­ing, but Yi is one of the most con­sis­tently en­joy­able poets I have en­coun­tered in re­cent years. I said to my wife: ‘‘ Take a look at this.’’ She read his book ravenously for about 10 min­utes, then looked up rather sadly: ‘‘ I sup­pose I have to give it back, so you can re­view it.’’

Yi is bril­liant, in­ven­tive, hu­mane, painfully hon­est, spare, iron­i­cal. His ge­nius is pro­lific and in poem af­ter poem his dart flies to the bull’seye. In Fac­tory for Ar­ti­fi­cial Limbs he de­scribes meet­ing up out­side the fac­tory gates with a child­hood friend who has gone to work there. He recog­nises the friend but ‘‘ his smil­ing face . . . was mag­ni­fied a cou­ple of times’’. He no­tices his friend’s walk is a bit odd, ‘‘ so I pulled up one leg of his trousers / It’s real he laughed’’. They re­mem­ber only when they say good­bye to shake hands and ‘‘ Ev­ery­thing was in­tact, same as it ever was / We both roared with laugh­ter.’’

In Old Tol­stoy Ticked Me Off he watches a

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